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Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 2 March 24, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Alan Shapiro (hssonline.org)

In Pt. 1 of this post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed on this blog here).  Shapiro argued that deficiencies in Schaffer’s portrayal of objection to Newton’s experiments derived from Schaffer’s “constructivist” methodology, which made him pay too much mind to disputes over experimental results, and not enough to others’ apparent ability to replicate Newton’s experiments, nor to the theoretical context of those experiments.  Per Shapiro, these factors actually led to a record of reasonable success in securing assent around Newton’s work, even among Newton’s intellectual competitors.  I argued that taking Schaffer’s paper to constitute a fully adequate history of the reception of Newton’s work spoke past the point of Schaffer’s commentary, which was intended to elucidate historical strategies specifically surrounding instances of failure to attain assent over experimental results.

In this post, I want to expand on the key strength of Shapiro’s criticism: the importance he ascribed to synthetic accounts of history, which contrasts with the historiography of commentary espoused by Schaffer.

In his criticism, Shapiro opts simply to recount the entire history of the reception of Newton’s work on colors, so as to take a full account of the range of responses to that work over time.  The resulting sense of perspective is in turn to reveal the weaknesses in Schaffer’s account:

Rather than attempt to counter Schaffer’s claims point by point, I will present an alternative account of the acceptance of Newton’s theory and its experimental evidence and at essential points show how Schaffer’s account either is contradicted by the evidence or fails to explain it.  Focusing on Newton’s critics tells us little about his supporters who are largely ignored by Schaffer.  It is easy to understand why historians of science devote so much attention to controversy.  It provides a natural narrative, defines crucial issues, and identifies a body of easily located, coherent sources.  However, by insufficiently pursuing the response of the entire scientific community to a controversy and by ignoring those who do not enter the fray, historians may fail to recognize equally important but uncontentious elements of the science of the period that can provide powerful reasons for accepting novel claims.  Moreover, since dissenters attain greater notoriety than quiet supporters, undue focus on controversy can easily distort the historical picture. (61-62, my emphasis)

Again, Schaffer’s piece concentrated specifically on features of controversial episodes, so to compare it point for point to Shapiro’s reception history is not entirely fair.  Nevertheless, the comparison may be worthwhile: the question of the fullness of an account calls to mind Schaffer’s dispute with Bruno Latour over the reception of Louis Pasteur’s work.  In that dispute, Schaffer chastised Latour for explaining Pasteur’s success without reference to his ability to overcome the challenge of Robert Koch.  For Schaffer, a proper frame of historical explanation had to include a full array of challengers.

Shapiro quite rightly observes that historians who identified with the constructivism saw comparatively little need to include supporters within the frame of inquiry.  The reason for this, of course, is that controversy is supposed to reveal narrative elements that might otherwise be hidden — which is part of what I called the “cult of invisibility” in Pt. 1.  Schaffer invokes its catechism accordingly: “It is misleading to treat the authority of such experiments as self-evident, for this obscures the detailed  character of the experimental controversy.  The ground of such authority was often the matter in dispute.  The resolution of such disputes masks the process by which agreement is accomplished” (Schaffer, 68).  “Prisms have become so uncontentious that it is now hard to recapture the sense of their contingent and controversial use” (Schaffer, 70).  So Schaffer illustrates some argumentative strategies developed when the prism experiments were brought into dispute.

Leave aside for the moment Shapiro’s very important point that assent and the reasons for it may be even more hidden.  What does this illustration tell us about the place of these disputes in history?  Without a full sense of the spectrum of reactions to Newton’s work, or the reasons underlying assent, it is difficult to gauge.

Shapiro, notably, takes the recalcitrant Jesuits at Lièges to be much less important than might be supposed from Schaffer’s account.  Because of their recalcitrance, they are a “constructivist’s dream”: “Schaffer, not surprisingly, devotes much attention to [their failure to achieve replication].”  Shapiro, however, observes, “it was of little historical significance.  The exiled Jesuits had no support in England, where even Hooke, certainly no supporter of Newton and his theory, derided them as ‘extravagantly impertinent — who never will yeald be the matter never soe plain'” (78).

One might well point to the principle of symmetry here to suggest that no actors’ claims may be dismissed (lest they be rendered invisible), but the point is not to dismiss them, but to place their historical significance in a proper perspective.  In the present context, neither Schaffer nor Shapiro has any interest in the Lièges Jesuits in and of themselves, only in their role as objectors to Newton.  If we are to weigh the significance and nature of objections, however, it is important to break away from the journalistic strategy of finding the two sides of the story and then get the opposing quotes (what Shapiro calls a “natural narrative”).  Shapiro appeals to the effect on the mind of the reader in objecting to the lack of perspective in Schaffer’s account: “he makes it appear that Newton’s theory was continually contested.”  Shapiro by contrast is able to weigh the importance of objections against each other: “There was … only one experimental challenge to Newton’s work that mattered at the time, that by Edme Mariotte published in 1681” (61).

Additionally, a synthetic perspective provides Shapiro with an opportunity to elucidate the sources of assent in Newton’s theory: “Two groups, mathematical scientists and Scottish natural philosophers, emerge as the principal supporters of Newton’s theory between its initial publication and that of the Opticks.  Neither group, it should be noted, had much allegiance to the Royal Society or its purported [experimentalist] ideology, which has come to dominate the interpretation of Restoration science.  They came to support his theory without public debate or public testing of his experiments, though I will present evidence of private tests” (62).  Shapiro goes on to discuss patterns of acceptance on the Continent following the Opticks.

We loop around again to a possible defense against these arguments.  If the topic of investigation is specifically strategies surrounding dissent rather than assent, we might take Schaffer’s piece to be an exploratory essay into those strategies, for which purpose actors’ reasons for assent, and perhaps even the prism experiments themselves are beside the point.  But if this is the case, it is difficult to tell what the parameters of such a history are, or where it might be expected to lead.  Michael Bycroft (citing me citing John Zammito) brings out the crucial point in a comment on Pt. 1: equivocally framed arguments lend themselves to defense against criticism.

The point of historiography is not to create unassailable portraits.  It is to advance knowledge of the past.  To my mind, ultimately the most damning argument against commentary absent some specified relation to a past or future synthesis is the inability to determine the status of the historical claims being made: are they critical? supplementary? exploratory? explanatory? descriptive? aimed at a naive audience? a specialist audience? Why include some points but not others?  Schaffer was unable to tell what Latour was arguing in Pasteurization of France, and Shapiro was unable to parse what Schaffer was arguing in “Glass Works”.  Yet the common thread is a concern over the distortion of the “historical picture”.

With so many intelligent people unable to comprehend what anybody else is — and is not — claiming, what hope is there for constructive historiography?  The points in question haven’t really been that difficult; they have simply been placed in interpretive frameworks that are so idiosyncratic and equivocal that the arguments become unnecessarily difficult to parse.

To my mind, Shapiro’s retort to Schaffer is most notable not for suggesting the poverty of a constructivist perspective to history, but for demonstrating the value of formulating concrete claims by anchoring commentary firmly to some explicitly synthetic account.  That way the scope, completeness, or coherence of the synthesis can be clearly affirmed or challenged.



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